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Seizing phone records is serious business

The Justice Department informed The Asso-ciated Press on Friday that it had secretly seized two months' worth of phone records for reporters and editors earlier this year.

The staggering breadth of the records the Justice Department obtained - and the fact that the AP was given no opportunity to argue against this intrusion - set off alarm bells.

More than four dozen media organizations lodged a hot protest with the department.

Small wonder.

If the government can come in and seize reams of phone records from newsgathering organizations without notice or due process, not only is newsgathering not safe from government, nobody is.

Judging from the time frame covered by the records seized, observers speculate the records grab may be related to an investigation into how the CIA's disruption of a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner made it into print.

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., characterized that leak as "very, very serious." Indeed, there has been bipartisan outrage over leaks of national-

  • ecurity-sensitive information over the past year.
  • In 2012, Holder assigned U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. of the District of Columbia to lead an

     investigation into one such leak.

    The press is not immune from entanglement in such probes, but the broad scope of the records seized from the AP sent a deep chill through the press corps.

    A free press is essential to a free society.

    "Justice Department regulations call for subpoenas for journalists' phone records to be undertaken as a last resort and narrowly focused, subject to the attorney general's personal signoff," the New York Times said.

    "Under normal circumstances the regulations call for notice and negotiations, giving the news organization a chance to challenge the subpoena in court."

    Machen's spokesman, William Miller, acknowledged that, saying "We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."

    There was no such notification in this case, which may mean that the department has a pretty big fish on the line.

    Time will tell.

    The press isn't apparently the target of this investigation; the leaker is.

    But the press will - and should - remain vigilant about protecting its right to obtain information about what the government is doing.

    The secret seizure of records - without notice - is a threat not just to reporting, but by extension to all Americans.


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